How can we reimagine activism in architecture? Prospects for agency come from many directions. If it is self-evident that questions around environment form one possible basis for considerations of advocacy, activism, and alliance, it is perhaps less intuitive to view familiar issues of technology, efficiency, and performance with a brashly sociocultural framework.
In the late 1940s—more precisely, in the brief period of five years from 1947 to 1952—it wasn’t yet clear that petroleum would overwhelm economic and environmental systems. Corporate and government agencies were just beginning to assess the extent of oil reserves in the Middle East, and there was a general anxiety about where the energy for economic growth could be found.
Numerous architects, engineers, and others were focused on how solar energy could fulfill certain heating needs in particular. Houses in the growing suburbs were tantalizing sites for experimentation, not only as technological means to absorb and store solar radiation (this was before photovoltaics), but also as a means of experimentation with how to live differently with geophysical systems.
One of the most important of these projects was the Dover Sun House, designed by architect Eleanor Raymond in collaboration with engineer Maria Telkes and funded by sculptor and philanthropist Amelia Peabody. The house used an innovative chemical system to absorb and store daytime solar radiation for nighttime heating. It was an awkward building—a compact one-story residence with a large second level for solar panels and the chemical system that stored heat. It stood out, in this sense, as both an aggressive attempt to take advantage of the sun’s power and also as a monument to the design and technological changes that would be necessary to live without fossil fuels. Such collaboration—between architect, engineer, and client—also helped shepherd a model of environmental research in architecture.
Although the Dover House did not work very well, it inspired conversation and exploration into precisely how the designed system of a house could relate to the system of the biosphere; into how modern architecture could be a platform for regional adaptations sensitive to environmental and social conditions; and into how broad new technological trajectories (environmental science, architectural science, and their applications) could help bring collectives together to agitate for different economic systems, for different environmental consequences, and for different patterns of life. Though its impact was initially quite dramatic, the house lay dormant in technological lore for decades. Its relevance today is both as an experiment in efficiency and as an episode in counter-conduct, opening up toward a wider range of practices and proclivities as they resonate across architectural forms, discourses, and technologies. It is an early moment when architects considered how the design and technology of a building could intervene in the fraught relationship between economies and ecologies.
As contemporary concerns around climate change and energy efficiency grow more acute, it becomes clear that the collective experiment of fossil fuel-dependent economic growth has been catastrophic. Experiments in solar house heating are also models of multifaceted, multivalent, and multidisciplinary engagement with the latent reality of other possible futures. They are points of resistance, but delicately so. Raymond and Telkes attempted to take advantage of the policies, economies, technologies, and cultural frameworks available to them in order to emphasize a different disposition to the postwar global energy metabolism—not to overthrow it. Such ambitions require advocacy and alliances across fields of expertise, national boundaries, and geographical differences.